In Print

‘By the whole equation,’ David Thomson dares, aiming at nothing less than to set forth a single-volume history of Hollywood filmmaking in its entirety in under 400 pages, ‘I mean not just the history of American movies, but America in the time of movies’

In Print

The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood

by David Thomson

Knopf, 416 pp., $27.95

In Rosebud, David Thomson wishes away Orson Welles' unfinished and/or lost films from future screening, lest projection spoil the show flickering in his imagination. On the other hand, in his new history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation, he freely confabulates meetings and conflicts that never were between historical figures, fictional characters, and stars who played both. An idealist in the best and worst senses, Thomson writes film criticism from the deep recesses of Plato's cave, more aroused by a movie's suggestion of what lies outside, behind, or bestride its frame than by what's in it. Projection is mere pretext for the dream.

It's what makes much of Thomson's work such a provocative and personable read, like hours spent at coffee with a raconteur of tremendous synthetic powers. But as research branches into streams of memory, desire, and on into hallucination, well, you might suspect the dubiousness, even the danger, of his history.

Taking its title from a phrase in F. Scott Fitzgerald's (not coincidentally) unfinished, final novel, The Last Tycoon, The Whole Equation aims at nothing less than to set forth a single-volume history of Hollywood filmmaking in its entirety: "By the whole equation," he dares, "I mean not just the history of American movies, but America in the time of movies." And it aims to do it in fewer than 400 pages.

Thomson rightly questions the value of film scholarship too specialized to face the torrent of fiscal, artistic, political, and social variables that go into the vast equation of movies' making and reception. But at this unwieldy length – too long for essay or manifesto, too short on necessary detail, and too cavalier in its chronology to get away with it – the book sometimes reads like the excised footnotes and tangents from that proposed mammoth history of the form, rather than the thing itself.

Then again, what footnotes! His asides are astute as ever, many connections do stick, or stick in your craw, and he's right that we could use more Howard Hawks in our movie culture. Which is to say, I can't tell you not to read it. But beyond the frame, I might imagine The Whole Equation as an instruction manual for reading Thomson's more illuminating and comprehensive, if equally frustrating, New Biographical Dictionary of Film. So I can do my own damned math.

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